No question about it
Published: February 10, 2022 / Author: Carol Elliott
By the time you read this story, you and the rest of the world will know Matthew Downing’s fate. But at the time of this interview on the afternoon of Feb. 10, the senior marketing major at the University of Notre Dame was mum about whether he would emerge as champion or go down in flames on the 2022 Jeopardy! National College Championship. The episode, hosted by Mayim Bialik, was scheduled to air that evening.
What was the final Jeopardy question? “I can’t tell you,” said Downing, his smiling face dimming down into a serious expression. The look was not reflective of how he approached the entirety of the Jeopardy! experience.
Downing grew up in Ronkonkoma, New York, a small town in central Long Island. He’s watched episodes of Jeopardy! with his dad, Michael. “But I was never super crazy into it,” said Downing. “It was just something nice that my dad and I would do when he’d get home from work.”
In October 2020, he happened to see an ad inviting people to take the Jeopardy! test. “I thought, all right, let’s see how I do. There were like 50 questions, and 15 seconds to answer each one, he said. About 10 days later, he got a message from producers: He passed, and they wanted him to take another test.
After he passed that test, producers asked Downing to do an interview and play a live game via Zoom — using his pen as a buzzer. When he clicked, he got called on to answer the question.
He played a lot of games against a lot of people, and then didn’t hear anything for nine months. In October 2021, the producers called again and invited him to be on the show.
Jeopardy! is a competition that some contestants spend years notoriously and rigorously training for. Each year, about 100,000 people take the same test Downing did. Only about 2,500 hopefuls receive an invitation to a regional Jeopardy! audition. The perennially popular show has gained even more attention in recent years due to the massive winning streaks of players like Ken Jennings and Amy Schneider.
For the 2022 National College Championship, more than 26,000 students from 4,000 colleges, with just 36 contestants chosen for a chance to play for the ultimate prize of $250,000.
There are guides and websites galore offering advice for how to get on the show and how to win. Downing took a different approach. Instead of cramming trivia like it was finals week, he leaned on his knowledge of subjects he liked and knew well — math, geography, travel, pop culture, sports.
“I was really hoping for a sports category when I was there,” he said. “Especially since in the college championship, they’re notoriously bad at sports categories.”
He flew out to the Jeopardy! studio in Culver City, California. The studio was cold — like really, really cold — because they don’t want the contestants to sweat on TV. Downing admits to being a bit nervous, right up until it was his turn to compete.
“You kind of fall into the moment. I was a little nervous, but at the same time I just kept telling myself, ‘You got here, and whatever happens, happens. No matter how it goes, you’re OK,’ It’s an awesome experience no matter what,” he said. “But I will say, it is way easier to answer the questions from your couch.”
He stuck to his strategy of picking the categories he knows and focusing on being quick on the buzzer, because it’s extremely hard to buzz in. “Outside of that … it’s a game. People win, people lose. Just do your best, and hopefully it works out.”
Time flew and then it was over. (Although he does admit to having those after-the-fact internal “Oh, my God, you idiot. How did that not come to mind?” internal monolog most of us have after realizing the answer 20 minutes too late.) He had a great time and came to appreciate the knowledge and skill of his college competitors. Tonight, he’ll watch the show with friends, whom he fully expects will good-naturedly rip into him. He shrugs.
In the days leading up to the broadcast, ABC promoted the show broadly and Downing’s image predictably made its way around social media, with all that entails. Mostly good, said Downing, with a bit of the expected trolling, especially since he represents Notre Dame. He shrugs that off, too.
“The thing is, as long as I portray myself professionally and I show that I’m a good human being, and that Notre Dame is putting a good person forward, that’s all that matters,” said Downing, who plans to work for KPMG in Chicago as an advisory associate after graduation. “It’s how I represent the University as a person.”